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Summary Article: Continental philosophy
from Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy

the gradually changing spectrum of philosophical views that in the twentieth century developed in Continental Europe and that are notably different from the various forms of analytic philosophy that, during the same period, flourished in the Anglo-American world. Immediately after World War II the expression was more or less synonymous with ‘phenomenology’. The latter term, already used earlier in German idealism, received a completely new meaning in the work of Husserl. Later on the term was also applied, often with substantial changes in meaning, to the thought of a great number of other Continental philosophers such as Scheler, Alexander Pfander, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Nicolai Hartmann, and most philosophers mentioned below. For Husserl the aim of philosophy is to prepare humankind for a genuinely philosophical form of life, in and through which each human being gives him- or herself a rule through reason. Since the Renaissance, many philosophers have tried in vain to materialize this aim. In Husserl's view, the reason was that philosophers failed to use the proper philosophical method. Husserl's phenomenology was meant to provide philosophy with the method needed.

Among those deeply influenced by Husserl's ideas the so-called existentialists must be mentioned first. If ‘existentialism’ is construed strictly, it refers mainly to the philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir. In a very broad sense it refers to the ideas of an entire group of thinkers influenced methodologically by Husserl and in content by Marcel, Heidegger, Sartre, or Merleau-Ponty. In this case one often speaks of existential phenomenology.

When Heidegger's philosophy became better known in the Anglo-American world, ‘Continental philosophy’ again received a new meaning. From Heidegger's first publication, Being and Time (1927), it was clear that his conception of phenomenology differs from that of Husserl in several important respects. That is why he qualified the term and spoke of hermeneutic phenomenology and clarified the expression by examining the “original” meaning of the Greek words from which the term was formed. In his view phenomenology must try “to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.” Heidegger applied the method first to the mode of being of man with the aim of approaching the question concerning the meaning of being itself through this phenomenological interpretation. Of those who took their point of departure from Heidegger, but also tried to go beyond him, Gadamer and Ricoeur must be mentioned.

The structuralist movement in France added another connotation to ‘Continental philosophy’. The term ‘structuralism’ above all refers to an activity, a way of knowing, speaking, and acting that extends over a number of distinguished domains of human activity: linguistics, aesthetics, anthropology, psychology, psychoanalysis, mathematics, philosophy of science, and philosophy itself. Structuralism, which became a fashion in Paris and later in Western Europe generally, reached its high point on the Continent between 1950 and 1970. It was inspired by ideas first formulated by Russian formalism (1916–26) and Czech structuralism (1926–40), but also by ideas derived from the works of Marx and Freud. In France Foucault, Barthes, Althusser, and Derrida were the leading figures. Structuralism is not a new philosophical movement; it must be characterized by structuralist activity, which is meant to evoke ever new objects. This can be done in a constructive and a reconstructive manner, but these two ways of evoking objects can never be separated. One finds the constructive aspect primarily in structuralist aesthetics and linguistics, whereas the reconstructive aspect is more apparent in philosophical reflections upon the structuralist activity. Influenced by Nietzschean ideas, structuralism later developed in a number of directions, including poststructuralism; in this context the works of Gilles Deleuze, Lyotard, Irigaray, and Kristeva must be mentioned.

After 1970 ‘Continental philosophy’ received yet another connotation: deconstruction. At first deconstruction presented itself as a reaction against philosophical hermeneutics, even though both deconstruction and hermeneutics claim their origin in Heidegger's reinterpretation of Husserl's phenomenology. The leading philosopher of the movement is Derrida, who at first tried to think along phenomenological and structuralist lines. Derrida formulated his “final” view in a linguistic form that is both complex and suggestive. It is not easy to state in a few sentences what deconstruction is. Generally speaking one can say that what is being deconstructed is texts; they are deconstructed to show that there are conflicting conceptions of meaning and implication in every text so that it is never possible definitively to show what a text really means. Derrida's own deconstructive work is concerned mainly with philosophical texts, whereas others apply the “method” predominantly to literary texts. What according to Derrida distinguished philosophy is its reluctance to face the fact that it, too, is a product of linguistic and rhetorical figures. Deconstruction is here that process of close reading that focuses on those elements where philosophers in their work try to erase all knowledge of its own linguistic and rhetorical dimensions. It has been said that if construction typifies modern thinking, then deconstruction is the mode of thinking that radically tries to overcome modernity. Yet this view is simplistic, since one also deconstructs Plato and many other thinkers and philosophers of the premodern age.

People concerned with social and political philosophy who have sought affiliation with Continental philosophy often appeal to the so-called critical theory of the Frankfurt School in general, and to Habermas's theory of communicative action in particular. Habermas's view, like the position of the Frankfurt School in general, is philosophically eclectic. It tries to bring into harmony ideas derived from Kant, German idealism, and Marx, as well as ideas from the sociology of knowledge and the social sciences. Habermas believes that his theory makes it possible to develop a communication community without alienation that is guided by reason in such a way that the community can stand freely in regard to the objectively given reality. Critics have pointed out that in order to make this theory work Habermas must substantiate a number of assumptions that until now he has not been able to justify.

See also Analytic Philosophy, Deconstruction, Existentialism, French Philosophy, German Philosophy, Phenomenology, Sartre, Structuralism.

Joseph J. Kockelmans
© Cambridge University Press 1995, 1999, 2015

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